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Governor's proposals could lead to $1.7 million in LUSD cuts

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Posted: Tuesday, March 1, 2005 10:00 pm

Lodi Unified officials prepared themselves Tuesday night for state education proposals that could leave the district $1.7 million in the lurch when the budget is passed.

Superintendent Bill Huyett said the district would have to tighten its belt to accommodate Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's proposal that school districts assume responsibility for teacher's retirement accounts instead of a cash-strapped state system.

"My response is, if the system isn't working, you fix it," Huyett said. "You don't blow the whole thing up."

LUSD spotlight

Lodi Unified board members were wowed Tuesday night by a one-man rendition by Lodi High junior Michael Nikitaris of the popular Dr. Suess's "The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins."

Nikitaris is a three-year member of the Lodi High speech and debate team, which prides itself on offering more than one-on-one discussions.

"The biggest misconception is that it's just for people who want to be lawyers," said coach Jennifer Arishin.

Dressed in a suit and tie, the 17-year-old Nikitaris animatedly performed as many as 10 characters, ranging from a sleepy grandfather to an egotistical king, each with their own dialect and mannerisms.

The style of presentation falls under the category humorist interpretation, a lesser known style practiced by speech and debate devotees.

Tim Transon, another junior debater, introduced Nikitaris and afterward recognized former coach Tom Montgomery, who died last summer after 27 years with the team.

"He was really a mentor and a father to us," Transon said of Montgomery.

-- News Sentinel staff

Schwarzenegger's proposal would have employee's investing a portion of their salaries in private retirement plans resembling 401(k)s, instead of receiving 2 percent matching funds from the state under the California State Teachers Retirement System (CalSTRS).

Lodi Unified's share of the responsibility would come to $1.9 million for the 2005-06 fiscal year -- the same amount that the district would be forced to cut from programming.

"Without the commitment (to CalSTRS), there would be no gap," Huyett said.

Douglas Barge, Lodi Unified's chief business officer, said the district does not yet know which specific programs would be affected by the proposed cuts, but added that Huyett will make a recommendation to the board sometime in May.

In addition to a revamping of the teachers' retirement system, Schwarzenegger has proposed to withhold funding under Proposition 98, passed by voters in 1988.

The amendment to the state constitution guarantees K-12 schools and community colleges 40 percent of California's general fund.

Last year, schools gave up the $1.1 billion owed them by Prop 98 when the state found itself in financial trouble. This was done on the condition that they would be repaid this year and the next.

Schwarzenegger hopes, however, to withhold last year's money as well as the $1.2 billion owed to schools for 2005-06, despite his campaign promise in 2003 not compromise the guarantee.

If Lodi Unified were receiving Prop 98 funds, not only would there be no deficit, but the district could put money toward program improvements, officials said.

"There is a feeling of betrayal," Barge said about the Prop 98 cuts. "It's hard for people to accept the fact when (Schwarzenegger) gave his word."

Though preparing for the worst, district officials are still hoping for the best -- that the proposals will not be approved by the state legislature.

They join State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell and State Treasurer Phil Angelides, who have both publicly attacked the governor's plans for education finance.

"With this much debate going on, we think there's a likelihood that this is going to change," Barge said.

Contact reporter Sara Cardine at sarac@lodinews.com.

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